Insight 2: The system is the issue

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The exclusion of society from sustainability is a system-wide issue that’s hard to address

Governments, academia and business all continually exclude society from sustainability policies and projects. And because scientific knowledge and technical expertise dominates in these areas, broader systemic factors often don’t feature. These include globalisation, consumer culture and economic development. All of this perpetuates the status quo and makes more sustainable ways of living even more difficult to realise.

3S research shows social, political, economic and technological systems interlock which makes them very difficult to break apart. And that they’re reinforced by laws, institutions, political cultures and social norms that have become ingrained over time. Those systems have spawned many unsustainable practices and unequal power relations. The problem is that, to a large extent, we’re now locked into them.

Political questions get treated as technical ones

Many sustainability challenges – such as climate change, biodiversity loss or energy futures – aren’t just technological or scientific issues. They actually raise deeply political questions.

For example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning towards low carbon energy systems isn’t just about technical issues such as altering existing policy regulations in multiple sectors. It’s also about engaging with the expectations and needs of energy firms and consumers.

We can’t continue to rely on techno-fixes or blame individuals. To really get to grips with sustainability challenges we will need major social, political and cultural changes. The implication is that without a wholesale transformation of systems, cultures and institutions, change won’t be possible to achieve.

In western democracies the dominant vision is that ’green growth’ is the best way to achieve sustainability. This gives a key role to government, firms and technologies and advocates a techno-focused, market-based transition through continued economic growth.

However, alternative visions exist – often motivated by alternative values such as equity and fairness. But these visions aren’t perceived as credible because the mainstream impulse is always to prioritise economic growth and science-led progress.

Many alternative visions challenge key current social norms around increasing consumption profit maximisation. This opens up debates which many powerful actors view as unhelpful or even unpalatable.

Taking society out of sustainability has negative consequences

In 3S we argue that ignoring the social dimensions of sustainability has negative consequences and that social and technological systems are not separate but instead produced together.

Framing climate change as an urgent scientific problem suggests that to solve it one ‘just’ needs to stabilize global temperature and deploy a few quick techno-fix solutions like geo-engineering. One of the problems of this kind of dominant framing of this issue is that it narrows the range of policy options.

Another problem is that scientific framings of sustainability issues often don’t make sense to people and aren’t a silver bullet for getting more political action on an issue.

But questioning dominant framings of sustainability isn’t easy. To do it we must open up social and technological systems and engage with civil society.

In 3S we work to ensure that marginalised voices in favour of alternative visions of sustainability get heard. We try to understand and challenge the systemic driving forces which quieten these voices.